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SIR DAVID ROSS ON ARISTOTLE AND THE METAPHYSICS

            I will premise this by noting that this is not a book review. My purpose in this short text is to explain how Ross approaches Aristotle’s Metaphysics, ousia and the question of Being in his classical introduction to Aristotle. Aristotle,[1] now in its sixth edition, and accompanied by a helpful introduction by John L. Ackrill, was not written for a beginner in philosophy.  Rather, notes Ackrill, it can be useful for general readers who use it to understand elements of Aristotle’s philosophy; for university students who use it as an introduction to research on Aristotle, and for professional philosophers (p. ix-x). This book gives a general overview of Aristotle’s thought. Ross begins with an historical introduction explaining who Aristotle was, what he wrote, and his views on the authenticity, integrity and composition of the numerous books that have been attributed to Aristotle. Following this introduction Ross goes on to introduce the reader to the important elements of Aristotle’s Logic, philosophy of nature, biology, psychology, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and works on rhetoric and poetry. Ross discusses the composition and integrity of the Metaphysics on pages 11-12, and the contents of the Metaphysics on pages 161-94.

            In case anyone would be tempted to say otherwise, an analysis of the purported integrity or lack of integrity is necessary if one is going to adequately discuss Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Ross, though not going to the extreme of some (such as Jaeger) concerning the arbitrariness of the composition of the Metaphysics, does not think that the Metaphysics was originally in the form in which it has been received by modern philosophy. Ross theorizes that the title of the Metaphysics was provided by Andronicus, and that it was given to the collection of (mostly) independent treatises that “were placed after the physical works in Andronicus’ edition. (p. 11)” Concerning the composition and integrity of the Metaphysics Ross theorizes that book α was inserted into the already completed Metaphysics at a later date, and, though it is a general introduction to theoretical philosophy which adheres to Aristotelian thought, it is most likely not written by Aristotle himself (p. 11-12). Ross goes on to state that books Α, Δ, Κ, Λ, Ν were most likely written first (p. 12), but, Κ was then supposed to be replaced by Β, Γ, and Ε, and M was attached to N (p. 12). As such, Ross claims, the earliest complete text of the Metaphysics was composed of books Α, Β, Γ, Ε, Ζ, Η, Θ, Ι, M and N (p. 12). Λ, according to Ross, though written earlier, was considered a separate text concerning Aristotle’s theology, and, therefore, was only added at a later date. As such, the original text of the Metaphysics, according to Ross, that which should, primarily, be studied in order to understand Aristotle’s “Metaphysical” thought, is composed of books Α, Β, Γ, Ε, Ζ, Η, Θ, Ι, M and N.

            In light of Ross’s theories concerning the integrity and composition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics it should come as no surprise that, in his overview of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (pp. 161-94), Ross only interacts with books Α, Β, Γ, Ε, Ζ, Η, and Θ, with special mention given to Λ, due to the importance of its subject for modern metaphysics. It might seem curious that Ross does not give explicit attention to books Ι, M and N, however, much of what is covered, in depth, in these books is discussed in cursory form in the other books. Also, it would be almost impossible to give a cursory exposition of the subjects treated in these books.

            Ross claims that Aristotle’s motive in the Metaphysics is “the wish to acquire that form of knowledge which is most worthy of the name wisdom. (p. 161)” Wisdom, for Aristotle, is “knowledge of causes” and “of the first and most universal causes. (p. 161)” In explaining the contents of Aristotle’s Metaphysics Ross begins by noting the purpose of the book (p. 161-2). He then summarizes the rest of book A (p. 162). Ross notes that book B explains the nature of metaphysical inquiry and he then goes on to show where Aristotle presumably answers the questions that he raises in book B. In doing so he uses this overview to claim that Λ, Δ, and Κ do not fit into Aristotle’s inquiry (p. 162). Ross then finishes his explanation of Book B by stating the two main questions that Aristotle is worried about in the Metaphysics, and showing how they are answered by Aristotle (p. 162-6). Turning to book Γ Ross explains how Aristotle explains and defends the first principles of demonstration – the principle of non-contradiction, etc. (p. 166-70).  He then gives a summary of the purpose and accomplishments of book E. Ross gives his understanding of Aristotle’s thoughts on οὐσία in book E (p. 171-3) and then explains Aristotle’s consideration of the principles of sensible substance in book Z (p. 173-9), as well as Aristotle’s consideration of the principles of becoming and change as found in book H (p. 179-81). Ross goes on to explain Aristotle’s solution to the problem of change – namely the doctrine of potential and actual being – found in book Θ (p. 181-4). Though Ross does not consider book Λ to be a part of the original 10 book Metaphysics, he does provide a summary treatment of Aristotle’s theological considerations, as found in book Λ (p. 184-91). Ross does not treat, explicitly, books α, Δ, Ι, Κ, M, or N.

            Ross translates οὐσία, in the traditional way, as substance. Aristotle says that there are 4 meanings of the word, or ways in which we say, being. Ross treats the 4 ways on pages 170-84. Aristotle sought to discover which of the 4 ways of saying being was primary. Ross’s explanation of Aristotle’s rejection of the primacy of Accidental being and true-being is a relatively uncontroversial summary of Aristotle’s analysis of these 2 ways of saying being. Ross then turns to Aristotle’s notion of οὐσία (p. 171-3). Ross shows why Aristotle thinks that οὐσία is primary to the categories (p. 171-2). One of the more interesting parts of Ross’s explanation of Aristotle is when he notes the apparent ambiguity of Aristotle’s use of the word οὐσία in the Metaphysics (p. 172). This term is occasionally used to refer to the individual being & occasionally to refer to the essence or nature of the individual being (p. 172). Ross does not appear to consider the fact that Aristotle discusses various meanings of οὐσία,[2] and that this helps to explain why Aristotle seems, occasionally, to use οὐσία in different ways. This may also be why Ross does not accept the general integrity of the Metaphysics, in which Aristotle is exploring the question of Being (as οὐσία), with the purpose of discovering the principles and causes of the primary sense of Being (οὐσία). Of course, in order to answer this question, Aristotle begins with sensible οὐσία and, as he did with being (τὸ ὄν), sets out to discover the primary meaning of οὐσία.

            On pages 173-81 Ross provides a decent introductory explanation of Aristotle’s views concerning the causes and principles of sensible οὐσία. Ross explains the notion of prime matter, the hierarchy of Being (p. 175) and two important difficulties raised by Aristotle’s analysis of the principles of sensible οὐσία, including an analysis of the relation of universals to sensible οὐσία (p. 175-8). Ross then notes Aristotle’s realization that the phrase which is frequently translated essence (τὸ τί ᾖν εἶναι), as an answer to the question “what is the cause of sensible οὐσία?”, is overly theoretical and incomplete.

            Ross’s explanation of Aristotle’s discussion concerning becoming is helpful, but basic (p. 179-81), as is his discussion of Aristotle’s observations concerning potency and Actuality (p. 181-4).



[1]Sir David Ross, Aristotle, 6th ed. (1995; repr., London: Routledge, 2006). All page numbers in this text refer to this edition.

[2]Also, as some scholars have noted, Aristotle’s οὐσία seems to always include the notion of the Being of some individual nature or essence.

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